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Meet a Scottish ‘Witch’ Who Died 300 Years Ago

Digital reconstruction gives a face to a sad tale.

Lilias Adie's face, reconstructed from century-old images of her skull.
Lilias Adie’s face, reconstructed from century-old images of her skull. Courtesy University of Dundee

The face of a woman believed to be a witch 300 years ago has been revealed by a forensic artist, working alongside a BBC historical television program.

Lilias Adie was summoned before a court in 1704, in the Scottish village of Torryburn, Fife, where she lived. She had been accused of witchcraft and, likely following a torturous interrogation, told the court how the devil had come to her before sunset, on a sultry July evening three years earlier. He took her behind a pile of wheat sheaves, put one hand on the crown of her head, and the other on the soles of her feet, and asked her to renounce her baptism. They had sex. His embraces, she told the court, were cold and unsatisfactory. “His skin was cold, and his color black and pale, he had a hat on his head, and his feet was cloven like the feet of a stirk [young cow or bull].” They met again by moonlight, and again, and again.

Adie died in prison before she could be tried (and likely burned). Her body was buried in the sticky mire of the mudflats around the village, with a large stone placed on top. This, the villagers believed, would keep her in her grave and stop the devil from possessing her remains. (Satan was said to animate such “walking corpses,” sometimes in order to have sex with witches.) Around a century later, her skull was dug up by some enterprising locals and sold to the University of St. Andrews, where it was photographed—and then promptly disappeared. The images eventually wound up in the hands of forensic artist Christopher Rynn, of the University of Dundee.

Rynn created a detailed facial reconstruction based on the skull photo, and it may be the only existing likeness of a Scottish “witch.” Most were burned, their skulls reduced to ash. “[Subjects] begin to remind you of people you know, as you’re tweaking the facial expression and adding photographic textures,” Rynn said, in a statement. “There was nothing in Lilias’ story that suggested to me that nowadays she would be considered as anything other than a victim of horrible circumstances, so I saw no reason to pull the face into an unpleasant or mean expression and she ended up having quite a kind face, quite naturally.”

That kindness, historian Louise Yeoman said in a statement, was likely accompanied by cleverness, ingenuity, and toughness. “The point of the interrogation and its cruelties was to get names,” Yeoman said. Adie said that the other women at the witches’ gatherings were masked and unidentifiable. She only offered up the names of people who has already been exposed—“despite the fact it would probably mean there was no let-up for her. It’s sad to think her neighbours expected some terrifying monster when she was actually an innocent person who’d suffered terribly. The only thing that’s monstrous here is the miscarriage of justice.”